Throughout history many stories have been told. However, not every story is true. There are many stories about ancient Mesopotamia and several of those stories revolve around a man named Gilgamesh. In The Epic of Gilgamesh, edited by Andrew George, we see how Gilgamesh’s story has been passed down. Throughout the story, Gilgamesh is in search of immortality. In a way he is afraid of death and does not want to believe that his life will end. Gilgamesh believes that because he is two-thirds god, he is god-like and therefore deserves to be immortal.
As Gilgamesh searches for immortality, he slowly recognizes that his objective is impossible and accepts that someday his will eventually die. Throughout this story we are taught that there may be more to life than achieving immortality and that you should do good deeds because it is the right thing to do. Ultimately, the story demonstrates the fear of not knowing what will happen after death as Gilgamesh strives to prevent death overcoming him.
Growing up Gilgamesh was praised by the people in his city. At the time, he was a ruler in the city of Uruk. He seemed to live as though he was indestructible. However, a man named Enkidu comes to Uruk and helps Gilgamesh balance his power. They both become close friends. Enkidu was basically sent to Gilgamesh because he was taking his power too far and abusing his power. George states, “By day and night his tyranny grows harsher… It is he who is shepherd of Uruk-the-Sheepfold [but Gilgamesh] lets no [daughter go free to her] mother.
” (George, I 69-71). Gilgamesh seemed to be a very demanding ruler that did not care about what he did to people regardless of them not wanting to go through with it. Starting out, it seems that Gilgamesh does not deserve immortality because of this. He eventually starts to question his mortality and feared that he would die just like everyone else. This same fear drove his chase for eternal youth.
While out exploring, Gilgamesh and Enkidu go to Cedar Forest. A creature by the name of Humbaba confronts them once they enter the forest. Gilgamesh ends up killing Humbaba after the confrontation because Enkidu encouraged him to do so. Once the gods found out about what Gilgamesh did, they end up killing Enkidu for encouraging Gilgamesh to kill Humbaba who was innocent. Enkidu was Gilgamesh’s closest friend and once he died, Gilgamesh becomes even more cognizant of his mortality. He starts to go on a mission to prove that he should be immortal. He looks for a man named Uta-napishti who was granted eternal life. However, this isn’t an easy task and Gilgamesh has to overcome many obstacles to reach Uta-napishti.
After making it to Uta-napishti, Gilgamesh is surprised that he is an actual human. He then orders Gilgamesh to go without sleep saying, “But you now, who’ll convene for you the gods’ assembly, so you can find the life you search for? For six days and seven nights, come, do without slumber!” (George, XI 207). By doing this, Gilgamesh would prove that he should be immortal. Nevertheless, he ends up not being able to stay awake as, “…sleep like a fog breathed over him.”(George, XI 211). Because of his failed attempt to prove that he should be immortal, he soon realizes that he should not live in fear and that fate will eventually come. This journey ends up making Gilgamesh a stronger, more knowledgeable king.
Throughout the Epic of Gilgamesh, a recurring theme is the fear of death. This seems to be Gilgamesh’s main dread. Gilgamesh states, “ But never was drawn the likeness of Death, never in the land did the dead greet a man…both Death and Life they have established, but the day of death they do not disclose.” (George, X 317-321). Gilgamesh believes that since we cannot actually see what will happen after we die, it is to be feared. As Gilgamesh starts to leave Uta-napishti after not being able to stay awake for six days and seven nights, Uta-napishti discloses the secret to eternal youth. He does this by telling Gilgamesh that there is a plant that will keep him young that can be found under the sea.
Uta-napishti says, “ There is a plant that [looks] like a box-thorn, it has prickles like a dogrose, and will [prick one who plucks it.] But if you can possess this plant, [you’ll be again as you were in your youth.]” (George, XI 283-286). As soon as Gilgamesh hears about this, he immediately sets out to find it by retrieving it from under the sea since restoring his youth is the closest he will get to becoming immortal. After finding the plant, Gilgamesh hold off on eating it. First, he wants to wait and take it, “…to an ancient I will feed some and put the plant to the test!” (George, XI 298). Gilgamesh plans on testing the plant out on an older man to see if the plant actually works. At this moment, we really see how far he will go to avoid death. The fear of dying and not knowing what will come after death seems to really push his mission for immortality.
However, as Gilgamesh finds a pool of water to bathe in, “ Of the plant’s fragrance a snake caught scent, came up [in silence], and bore the plant off.” (George, XI 305-306). A snake comes along and steals the plant. This leaves Gilgamesh not knowing if the plant would actually restore his youth. This is the one moment that we see Gilgamesh cry. Once the snake took the plant it ended up shedding its skin soon after. That leaves us with the idea that we don’t really know if the plant would have made Gilgamesh age or stay youthful. In this instance, Gilgamesh realizes that death is not physically tangible like everything else he is used to fighting. Yet, we see how far Gilgamesh was willing to go to become immortal which ultimately never happens.
We see how much the fear of death pushes Gilgamesh’s quest for immortality. Throughout the story we are shown multiple attempts at what cannot be achieved. Once Enkidu dies, Gilgamesh realizes that he does not want to die. After several failed attempts, Gilgamesh realizes that it is impossible to become immortal and that there is more to life than trying to live forever. As mentioned before, since Gilgamesh is two-thirds god, I believe that the main reason he went on this search for immortality was because he wanted to feel more god-like. As humans, we all fear death and fear what we don’t know. This logic seemed to take over Gilgamesh and ultimately lead him to a downward spiral. The story teaches us that immortality is not tangible and that fear of death is a common fear that even a king was afraid of.